The star of ‘Presidential Apprentice’ likes it when his subordinates fight. On his reality TV show, Donald Trump encouraged infighting to create drama and set himself above the contestants, but this trait had always been part of his leadership style as a businessman. It defined his campaign team, and has carried over into the White House, where Trump has set up rival groups in a competition for power — and not in the Abraham Lincoln “team of rivals” sense, but as a dysfunctional and increasingly-bitter mess.
We got a sign of this yesterday when news broke that strategist Steve Bannon had been removed from the principals committee of the National Security Council. According to the New York Times, Bannon “became increasingly embattled as other advisers, including Mr. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, complained about setbacks on health care and immigration.”
Mr. Bannon resisted the move, even threatening at one point to quit if it went forward, according to a White House official who, like others, insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Mr. Bannon’s camp denied that he had threatened to resign and spent the day spreading the word that the shift was a natural evolution, not a signal of any diminution of his outsize influence.
I’m not the first to suggest that Bannon’s version of events is a self-serving fraud, but let’s focus on the lines of interest instead of the excuses. For example, POLITICO reports that Bannon threatened to resign if he was cast off the principals committee, and was talked down from that ledge by megadonor Rebekah Mercer, who convinced him that “this is a long-term play.”
The tension between the two is indicative of a larger power struggle in the White House as Kushner’s prominence and responsibility have ballooned. He has helped to expand the authority of two senior West Wing officials who, like him, are less ideological in nature: former Goldman Sachs executives Gary Cohn, who is now chairman of the National Economic Council, and Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy. The national security directive removing Bannon from the NSC explicitly authorized Powell to attend the National Security Council’s Principals’ and Deputies’ Committee meetings.
The Daily Beast reports that Bannon has been referring to Kushner as a “cuck” and a “globalist” — the worst labels in Breitbart-land — during “nonstop” arguments about the direction of the Trump administration. Matt Gertz of Media Matters also points out that “Breitbart published four different stories attacking Kushner” yesterday.
Breitbart’s campaign against Kushner began with a March 28 aggregation of a Times article detailing how a Senate committee plans to question Kushner “concerning meetings he held with Russian officials close to the Kremlin, including an executive with Russia’s state-owned development bank.” The unbylined item stuck out at a website that has portrayed stories of ties between Russia and the White House as a conspiracy pushed by the so-called deep state.
Two days later, Breitbart News Senior Editor-At-Large Peter Schweizer — who also serves as president of a nonprofit that was until recently chaired by Bannon — appeared on Breitbart’s SiriusXM radio show to criticize Kushner’s business dealings. Schweizer raised concerns that Kushner could use his role in the Trump administration to seek “sweetheart deals with foreign government entities,” calling the situation “worrisome.”
That would be the same Peter Schweizer who wrote the book Clinton Cash for Bannon’s nonprofit, inflating the “crooked Hillary” theme of 2016. Like Bannon, he is a creature of Mercer millions. It seems that Kushner’s most important rival is not even inside the White House at all, but is instead a far right hedge fund family with more money than sense.
Which makes all of this very, very exciting. Donald Trump has relied on his daughter’s husband for much longer than Bannon, and in much more personal depth. Attacking him through Breitbart and Schweizer and the Mercers may prove counterproductive, not to mention destructive. The more friction Bannon chooses to create, the hotter he makes it for himself. But with a 34% approval rating, the last thing Trump can afford is a break-up with the alt-right website that defined his candidacy — or the donor who kept his campaign afloat during the worst storms it endured.
So no matter who loses this war, America wins. Good fight, good night!
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